Saturday, 11 July 2015

6 Worm's Head

 6. Worm’s Head (photos: Dylan, Vernon, Worm’s Head) – 11 July 2015

On the south-west tip of peninsular Gower, the mile-long Worm’s Head promontory takes its name from Wurm, Old English for dragon or sea monster.  The illusion is heightened by a strange hollow sound that can emanate from a blow hole in stormy conditions when spray leaps high.  When waves break over the Worm in rough weather with bursts of spray and the cries of seabirds it is an impressive sight.

From Rhossili headland the promontory is open for 2½ hours either side of low tide, requiring a scramble across rocks over the natural causeway past rock pools to the Inner Head, before clambering a shorter distance over jagged rocks to the Middle Head.  A natural stone arch called the Devil’s Bridge takes one to the Outer Head, where access is prohibited from early March to the end of August as kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots are nesting.  Often grey seals are seen, with occasional sightings of dolphins.  Worm’s Head is a National Trust nature reserve.

As early as 1516 the Worm was mentioned in writing in an account of the legend of the infant St Cenydd being cast adrift in an open boat in the Loughor estuary, before rescue by seabirds which took him to Worm’s Head.  The Outer Head contains an almost inaccessible cave in the sheer rock-face, about 15ft above the high water mark.  This was noted by antiquarian John Leland in the sixteenth century, and bones of mammoth, bear and reindeer have been found there.  In the late nineteenth century an eccentric great-nephew of the poet Robert Southey stayed at Stouthall: he had a table and chair rowed out to the cave, though it is unlikely he ever produced anything literary there. 

Those who have painted Worm’s Head from a boat on the sea include James Harris of Reynoldston, Alfred Parkman the Bristol topographical artist, and Edward Duncan who regularly visited Gower during the summers to paint watercolours.

The Talbot family of Penrice Castle used to keep a flock of sheep grazing on the grassy Inner Head from September to March.  Each Tuesday a local farmer would collect a sheep off the Worm to be killed at Penrice, for the family to enjoy Worm’s Head mutton.  Even if the Talbots were staying at their London residence the sheep would be sent to them by rail.  But sheep developed a liking for the salt-air grass of the Inner Head and could be reluctant to return to mainland grass.  Sheep farmer Wilfred Beynon recalled how in the summer of 1932 a flock broke out of the field and tried to cross the causeway to the Worm when the tide was coming in: all 70 were drowned.

There was an experiment growing early potatoes on the Worm, but the labour of getting the crop across the rocks to the mainland made it counter-productive.

On the clifftop overlooking the Worm stands the National Coastwatch Look-out, opened in 2007 and staffed by volunteers.  With 300,000 visitors to Rhossili each year it displays a guide to causeway crossing times, for there have been fatalities (not just sheep) trying to cross when the tide quickly comes in.  Besides offering advice and guidance, Coastwatch volunteers can alert H.M. Coastguard about any swimmers, sailors or walkers in difficulty. 

In June 1940, after visiting the Worm with Caitlin and his Pennard friend Wyn Lewis, poet Vernon Watkins had to assist an unfit Dylan Thomas hurry back to the mainland, as the tide was coming in.  Dylan was anxious lest he be stranded on the Worm for seven hours - while Caitlin was back on the mainland in the company of the handsome Wyn… 


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